Friday, August 28, 2015

how to heal

There's such beauty in repetitions: reminiscent of breaths in and out, beats of one's heart.

I left South America a week ago, yesterday. As the plane took off, I repeated to myself, time and time again:

Thank you and goodbye
Thank you and goodbye
Thank you and goodbye

Gaining momentum, speeding away, lurching into the next phase of life, I repeated

Thank you and goodbye
Thank you and goodbye
Thank you and goodbye

Friday, August 7, 2015


I discovered some solitude and sweetness this Wednesday, when I stole a few moments away in a coffee shop. I purchased my first latte of the entire summer, one with artistic drapes of caramel over the foamy surface. And I lazed back into a comfy chair, in the corner of the shop. I clasped the warm cup between my hands, enthralled by the variety of indulgent sensations: the warmth, the sweetness, the embrace of the chair, the light that was streaming in from the window. I spent a few moments gathering my thoughts, watching people in the midst of their daily routines, before turning inward for reflection.

It dawned on me this week that my time here is slipping away. The overwhelming reality is that although afternoons can stretch for glorious lengths, weeks and months seems to pass frighteningly quickly. Immediately when I arrived in Quito, I felt pulled into relationship, swept off my feet with stories, entirely enamored and entirely taken by the people. And in this swirl of motion and emotion, I lost track of time. 

Now, with both feet on the ground, I am trying to discern meaning, trying to decide how the plethora of experiences will impact me and shape my life. 

Last summer, before I left Philadelphia, I met with a spiritual director who encouraged me to view my experiences as raspberries that I would hold in my hands. She told me, ever so carefully, that I should hold these experiences with tenderness and gentleness, lest I squeeze the berries too hard, and spoil them of their vitality. She explained that living in the present moment mandated that we hold all experiences with open hands and open hearts. 

This image was transformative for me, and I continue to try to hold relationships and memories loosely and lovingly. 

But when I consider this summer, the image of raspberries is inaccurate. Comparatively, when I consider what I am taking from this summer, I think of incredible sweetness. I am not holding raspberries tenderly, I am holding chunks of juicy, gorgeous mango. I am holding fruit that is overflowing from my hands: exotic and delightful. I have juice running down my arms, the entire way to my elbows. And truthfully, I am not completely sure how to hold it, but I am sure that I can exalt this experience as entirely beautiful and entirely good. 

I had a summer of sweetness. Not the kind of sweetness that I am used to. I am used to summertime sweetness in the forms of artificially-flavored popsicles and sugary lemonade, offering relief from the humidity and heat radiating from pavements. 

This summer exposed me to sweetness that I haven't known before. An intensely natural sweetness, intensely human, intensely real. A kind of sweetness that I can liken to fruit that has matured and ripened, and now is finally ready to be consumed and share its rich flavor. 

And I certainly encountered a variety of experiences that I can liken to fruit: fruit that hadn't yet matured, fruits with bruises, and fruits that were now blossoming into new springs of life. This breadth of experiences reminded me of growth and of process. Viewing people in various stages of life, dealing with different difficulties demonstrated for me, time and time again, that we are on journeys. It demonstrated that failure is not fatal, that time can heal, and that truly, relationships are transformative. 

When I arrived, I was an outsider. I couldn't speak a word of Spanish when I arrived. In a metaphorical, yet real sense, I was handling foreign fruit.

This summer, I learned to humble myself. I came to my context full of answers, full of ideas of how I could give to this community, full of confidence. 

But immediately, upon realizing how difficult it was to convey even the simplest of sentiments, I realized that this summer I would be a learner instead of a teacher. 

Assuming the role of a listener was transformative. I listened, I observed. And I found myself completely taken by all of the ways that attention was given to detail. Watching the world around me and processing internally, I found myself taken aback by all the gestures of love that were conveyed silently. Details that I would have otherwise dismissed had I not been primed to pay attention. 

My first morning, and for all following mornings, I was amazed at the care and dedication that my host mother took to cut up individual fruits for me and the family to enjoy over breakfast. It was so pleasurable for me to take note of such things, and when I began to look around, I saw these moments and these actions everywhere. 

I was completely taken by the details that I saw in the everyday. I observed entrance interviews, when people would come and spill over with experiences. Forced to simply listen, unable to comfort or communicate, I felt as though I finally took time to truly pay attention. Instead of thinking of how I would respond to their questions, I paid attention to the ways that they told their stories. I watched as mothers would pour out horrific narratives, while attending to their children. I watched as men took deep breaths before plunging into their own narratives. I watched as tears slipped out of eyes. I observed hope flicker in their eyes as well. I saw bravery, I saw strength, I saw resilience, in nearly a tangible way. 

I wanted to document these moments, somehow. Those moments when I was surprised by vitality, or hope, endurance, kindness, or vulnerability. These moments when I was completely astounded by the beauty that I saw in people. Somehow, I wanted to capture what I saw, especially if I was unable to communicate directly to them with words. When moments presented themselves, I tried to capture photographs of beaming smiles, of tired eyes, of brave mothers and fathers, and of joyful children. But everything seemed to pale in comparison to the radiant beauty of the people themselves. I was simply in awe, routinely, of the individuals I encountered everyday. A deeper level of looking and seeing was instilled me. 

I was amazed, again, when I realized how much deeper I could fall in love, how much more beauty I saw. As my relationships deepened, my understanding deepened, and I began to appreciate the beauty of congregants of the church and of the refugees at a deeper level. When I knew the stories of torture, of fleeing, of extreme pain, contrasted with the current reality of a beaming woman in my presence, her smile had different significance. Understanding the growth that individuals had endured helped me to appreciate their current sweetness on an entirely new level. 

Each smile, each laugh, each song, each dance, assumed a different complexity when I understood the journey that had been travelled to attain that happiness. 

I was humbled to realize how little I know about suffering, and I was humbled to realize how little I knew about joy. It was only through giving attention to detail, listening to stories completely, and journeying alongside others that I was able to embrace this fullness of humanity: one with unbearable pain, but also one with unspeakable sweetness. One of my absolute favorite poets, Mary Oliver, once wondered, "Isn't it wonderful how the way the world holds both the deeply serious and the unexpectedly mirthful?" And this is something that I question today, as I am amazed by the provision of the Divine and the depth of experience that a single soul can hold. 

As I am preparing to walk away from this experience, I have distilled one conviction that I will carry with me: I am determined to never take sweetness for granted again. But instead, I will realize that each honeyed, full taste is a miracle in itself: a journey to ripeness. I will give attention to the process and nurture those on their journey. And, somehow, I will continue to hold these candied bits, these beautiful experiences in my hands, determining significance, processing moments, picking apart significance as I go along.